Jess McConkey (aka Shirley Damsgaard) is the author of the popular Abby and Ophelia series and Love Lies Bleeding. I’m thrilled to welcome Jess to The Happy Booker today to talk about her newest novel The Widows of Braxton County. Also, Jess and Harper Collins are giving away 2 finished copes of The Widows of Braxton County to two lucky readers! Be sure to check out the Rafflecopter at the end of this post for your chance to win!
Hi Jess! Tell us a little about The Widows of Braxton County. How did this story happen, was there a specific incident, dream, or person that was the inspiration?
THE WIDOWS OF BRAXTON COUNTY was actually inspired by a book…MIDNIGHT ASSASSIN by Patricia Bryan and Thomas Wolf. It’s the true story of a murder that happened in Iowa in 1900, and in addition to telling the Hossack’s story, the authors also include a lot of information about what it was like for women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I found it fascinating and wanted to learn more about it so I started my own research into that period. As a result, the character of Hannah was born and the story just evolved from that point.
In your main character, Kate, what do you think readers will most connect with?
Kate was an interesting character to write, and to be honest, I had more of a problem with her than I did Hannah. Stereotypically, one would think that a woman of the 1890’s would be the one to maintain the status quo and a woman of today would be more likely to want her voice heard. However I thought it would be more interesting to flip it—Hannah is the one who won’t be silenced whereas Kate, because of her backstory, is too anxious to please! She has to learn to be true to herself, and that’s a struggle that I think everyone faces at one point or another in their life.
Did you have to do any type research for this story?
The old adage “God is in the details”…well, so is the story and research is essential! One example—in the first chapter, I had Hannah crossing to look inside her Hoosier cabinet. One problem…Hoosier cabinets didn’t come into use until 1899…nine years after this story took place! Thank goodness I checked it out and changed it!
Not only did I learn important details, but the research also gave me a feel of what life could’ve been like for someone like Hannah. Some of the things that I read, as a pretty independent woman myself, were very disturbing to me. Society saw women as frail, unable to deal with the real world, yet at the same time set very high standards when it came to maintaining their homes and “doing” for their families. Cleaning, cooking, gardening, canning, rearing children…and she had to do it without any of the conveniences we now take for granted. So much for being the weaker sex, huh??? There were pockets of change though. Women who strove to obtain an education; women who used what influence they could muster to change property laws, obtain suffrage on both a state and national level, and improve the treatment of the mentally ill; women who were not satisfied with the role society had assigned them.
Not all of the things I learned wound up in the book, but as I said, it did give me an understanding of that time, and I think as a result, Hannah’s story rings truer.
I'm also from a small town and know that the way people interact with one another is much different than in a city. Does the small town in this story bear any resemblance to the small town you grew up in?
It’s funny—I grew up in Winterset, Iowa and people who knew me back then are convinced the small towns in my books are patterned after Winterset. Yet the people who know me now are convinced the books take place in my current home town! So I guess there are elements of both towns and that was my goal. Create a setting that’s typical of any small town, no matter what state or region.
I read in another interview that you are more of a "pantser" than a "plotter", does the story ever end up going in a direction that you weren't expecting?
Actually with my last two books, I’ve become something of a hybrid…a combination of both a “pantser” and a “plotter.” I don’t think I’ll ever stop being a “pantser”…flying by the seat of my pants is too much a part of my personality for me to ever change! But now I use a storyline grid and write down where important plot points are going to fall within the story. Then I basically fill in the blanks, writing chapters that lead up to each of those points. I also make chapter notes on the storyline grid as I go along. This has proven to be very helpful because, yes, the characters do tend to take the story in different directions!
You have to play fair with the readers and when the characters do happen to do something unexpected, there has to be a hint, a reason, or a clue in a previous chapter to support their actions. For example, when Kate finds the kitten Joe has for her, it wouldn’t have had the impact that it did had it not been for the incident with the old tomcat earlier in the book. Using the storyline grid and chapter notes makes it easier for me to go back and add bits and pieces to previous chapters so that the characters’ actions in the current scene makes sense.
What, if anything, did you find more difficult in writing this novel compared to writing your Ophelia & Abby series?
Well, after writing seven Ophelia and Abby books, I knew my main characters pretty well, but the “Jess” books are all stand-alones. With each book, it’s necessary to form a whole new cast of characters and each cast has to be different from the previous book. It would be very easy to fall into the trap of being repetitive…different plot…different set of circumstances…but same type of characters, only with different names. I’ve tried very hard to avoid that by giving each character a unique backstory.
There’s also a different vibe to the “Jess” books. There’s more emphasis on what’s happening to the character internally versus what’s going on externally. And that isn’t always easy for me to write—I’ve always been better at writing scenes that deal with actions rather than emotions.
That said—I try not to over analyze too much—it freezes me up. Instead of just letting the story flow, I’ll find myself nitpicking the manuscript to death! Questioning every scene; every bit of dialogue. It’s better if I simply write the story then rely on my beta reader, and later on, my editor, to let me know if “Jess’s” voice veers off the track.
Are there any types of characters you find more of a challenge to write?
That’s easy—men!! I have a problem with all my male characters. It seems that they come across as either wimps or jerks! Why? I don’t know! I’ve two sons and I have had positive relationships with members of the male gender, but when I create a male character, they just come out wrong on the first go-round! In fact, I had a lot of problems with Joe on the first draft. He was totally unsympathetic at first…so much so that my agent gave me a good piece of advice…”You have to make them nice, normal before you flip them to creepy, weird!” I guess I think writing “creepy, weird” is more fun, but I intend to follow her suggestion in the next book!!!
What are a couple of your writing rituals or quirks?
Speaking of “weird” lol…I prefer to write in sweatpants, an old t-shirt, and socks. No shoes. No jeans. Nothing constricting. Also early morning is the best time. My house is quiet, no phone calls, no grandkids running in and out of my office.
Also I can always tell when I’ve reached my limit for the day…I turn into a dyslexic typist! I’ll start typing words such as “to”, “of”, “it”, etc. backwards. At that point I know it’s time to recharge!
What is one of your favorite quotes from this book?
When Joe turns up at Rose Clement’s farm to talk to Kate and has to reassure Rose that he doesn’t want any trouble. Then she informs him:
“That’s good, because I’m going to be watching out that front window. I’ll have my cell phone in one hand and my shotgun in the other. If you so much as touch her, we’ll see which one I use first.”
If you were to spend the day with one of the characters from your book, which one would it be and what would you do?
It definitely wouldn’t be Trudy!! Or Kate’s grandmother! I’ve always been a history buff so it would be interesting to go back in time and visit Hannah… just visit, I might add!! I wouldn’t want to live back then! If she had the time, we’d sit around, drink coffee, eat home-made cinnamon rolls (I imagine Hannah was a very good cook!), and I’d learn more about what it was really like for a woman of the 1890’s.
My second choice would be Rose. Again we’d be drinking coffee, eating, and I’d listen to the story of her life.
What's next? Are you currently working on a new book or series?
Next up is a new Ophelia and Abby. I’ve had a lot of emails from the readers, wanting the series to continue, so I decided to write #8. There isn’t a contract for it so the plan is to finish the manuscript, send it off to my agent, then go from there. I also have a glimmer of an idea for a new “Jess” book, but it’s still in the “mulling over” stages and I haven’t committed any ideas to paper yet. In addition to that, I’ve also the beginnings (four chapters done) of a new witch series that takes the whole witch thing in a different direction. This last one got shelved in order for me to write THE WIDOWS OF BRAXTON COUNTY, but I’ll get back to it eventually. That’s a really cool thing about books…they don’t have an expiration date!
Very true! Thanks so much for this Q & A with me today Jess! The Widows of Braxton County sounds amazing!
Here’s some more info about The Widows of Braxton County, where you can find it, and how to connect with Jess McConkey. Plus a chance to win one of two finished copies! Good luck!
Family secrets can bind and destroy
Kate is ready to put her nomadic, city-dwelling past behind her when she marries Joe Krause and moves with him to the Iowa farm that has been in his family for more than 140 years. But life on the farm isn't quite as idyllic as she'd hoped. It's filled with chores, judgmental neighbors, and her mother-in-law, who—unbeknownst to Kate until after the wedding—will be living with them.
As Kate struggles to find her place in the small farming community, she begins to realize that her husband and his family are not who she thought they were. According to town gossip, the Krause family harbors a long-kept secret about a mysterious death that haunts Kate as a dangerous, unexplainable chain of events begins.
About the Author
Jess McConkey is the alter ego of author Shirley Damsgaard. Not only do the two look remarkably alike, but they share many of the same interests — family, friends, gardening, and of course, writing. However, Jess’ debut novel, LOVE LIES BLEEDING, is different from Shirley’s Ophelia and Abby Mystery Series. (“Hence the pen name, folks!” — S.D.) Atmospheric…character driven her editor described ti as ” a southern gothic only it doesn’t take place in the South.” (The setting is the lakes of Minnesota — a favorite place of both Jess and Shirley.)
Connect with the author:
Enter to win one of 2 finished copies of The Widows of Braxton County
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